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What is a learning culture?

Jan 13, 2022 11:45:00 AM

what is a learning culture

We are starting the year with a series of articles on learning culture – what constitutes a learning culture, the key elements that need to be in place, the benefits of having a learning culture and how to build one. This first article focuses on What is a learning culture?

Back in 2010, learning expert Josh Bersin famously (in L&D circles) said: “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organisation’s learning culture.” Bersin, founder and president of research company Bersin & Associates, made the comment in conjunction with the publication of a Bersin report called High Impact Learning Culture: 40 Practices for and Empowered Enterprise.

Fast forward several years and analysts and learning experts are still talking about the importance of building a learning culture. And if the professional services firm Deloitte’s 2019 Global Capital Trends report is anything to go by, there is more talking about it than achieving it. Just one in nine (11%) of the survey participants said their organisation had an excellent learning culture, with under half (43%) saying their learning culture was good.

What is a learning culture exactly?

Lots of different definitions have been formulated over the years and many organisations choose to create their own definition. One of the most popular ones is attributed to the CEB (Corporate Executive Board), before it was acquired by technology research and consultancy organisation Gartner. It is: “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organisation”.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in its 2020 report Creating Learning Cultures: Assessing the evidence, says there are some common concepts around learning cultures:

  • supporting individual learning and transformation, and allowing this knowledge to shape strategy and process
  • encouraging teams to learn and reflect on their work and proactively influence strategy and process change
  • a willingness to learn and improve from the wider organisation and key decision-makers

Nigel Paine, expert, author and speaker on learning and leadership, places much more emphasis on collective learning, rather than individual learning. And he thinks four key elements need to be in place in order for organisations to achieve a true learning culture: trust, leadership, engagement and empowerment. We will discuss these elements in more detail in the next post in this series, which is an interview with Paine about Building a learning culture.

Whatever definition an organisation chooses to adopt, or to create internally, one thing is certain: a learning culture encompasses the whole organisation. It’s not a directive or initiative from learning and development or the top team. They may lay the foundations, fostering and facilitating a learning culture, but they don’t own it or manage it. Ownership has to be organisation-wide. The whole workforce needs to be engaged in learning, individually and collectively. It has to be a way of doing and being - what’s known as ‘how things are done round here’. And it needs to be voluntary. People need to want to learn and they need to be engaged with their role and looking for solutions to organisational problems, whether they are little problems within one department or big problems that affect the whole organisation.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 makes much of learning in the flow of work. Organisations need to help employees learn in the flow of work, both through giving them access to the right learning content and tools and enabling them to learn from and with their colleagues, peers, managers and wider network, when and as they need to.

Learning Culture Case Study

Technological innovation has transformed how, where and when we learn

Thinking around learning culture has changed over the years as workplaces and industry have changed. These changes have largely been driven by technological innovation. In tech years, it’s a long time since that Bersin report in 2010 and a lot has changed since then in terms of how people learn. Not that Bersin was the first to talk about learning cultures – the educational theorist and practitioner Etienne Wenger, for example, talked about concepts such as social learning in the 1990s and there were others before him too.

Tech has completely transformed how, where and when we learn. As a result, there is now much greater depth and breadth of learning. Digital offers us many more learning modalities, which can only enrich and deepen the learning experience. To achieve a learning culture, organisations have to enable employees to learn in the flow of work, to access learning when they need it, how they need it and through their medium of choice, whether that medium is digital or face-to-face. These days it’s all about choice, accessibility and relevance. It’s about on-demand learning that helps people do their jobs better.

Covid-19 has also changed the learning landscape. Has it brought us closer to a learning culture? Yes, definitely, in that it has made digital and blended learning a reality for those organisations that were opposed to online learning before the pandemic struck. Lockdown and ongoing restrictions necessitated digital learning and many have found it to be a very positive experience. The general consensus is that the future is hybrid – a mix of digital and face-to-face work and learning, according to organisational needs and context.

Something else that Covid-19 has taught us is that in order to survive and thrive through uncertainty, organisations have to be able to adapt and pivot very quickly. That happens much more easily in companies that have a learning culture, where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes or try things out, where they don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do but will take the initiative. Agile organisations have agile learning cultures.

Learning culture as a catalyst for business performance

According to research by Bersin by Deloitte, high performing learning organisations report several business-critical benefits. These are:

  • Innovation
    92% more likely to innovate and 46% more likely to be first to market
  • Profitability
    17% more likely to be market share leader
  • Skills for the future
    58% more prepared to meet future demand
  • Time to market
    34% better response to customer needs
  • Quality
    26% greater ability to deliver quality products
  • Productivity
    37% greater employee productivity
These are significant benefits – 92% more productive, 37% more productive, 58% more future ready... They demonstrate how having a learning culture impacts on every aspect of the business. In an increasingly uncertain world, what can be more important than having the skills to deal with whatever lies next around the corner?

The next post in this series is an interview with Nigel Paine, on the topic Building a learning culture

About Rise Up
Rise Up offers an all-round blended learning solution, bringing together the best of face-to-face learning and e-learning. It empowers L&D teams to develop a culture of learning through a blended learning platform that is accessible anywhere, at any time. Rise Up bridges the gap between learning, knowledge management and community, helping organisations create an environment that fosters a learning culture. To find out more, please visit

Learning Culture Case Study